Reviews — From the March 2016 issue

Circles and Lines

John Wray’s time machine

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Discussed in this essay:

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 512 pages. $27.

Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver has been exiled from time, trapped at 8:47 “this” Monday morning in the library of a Harlem apartment that was once inhabited by his two maiden aunts. He has an armchair, a table, half a bottle of beer, paper, and a refillable tortoiseshell pen. Around him are piles of junk: newspapers, Game Boys, carburetors, assault rifles, and “chronometers of every make and model, pendulums primed, springs oiled and wound, circuitry buzzing.” The book Waldy is writing, a history of his family and its fatal fixation on time, will turn out to have been John Wray’s new novel. At least initially, it looks like an energetic postmodern romp in the manner of recent books by David Mitchell, Ned Beauman, Jonathan Lethem, etc. It straddles the twentieth century (and our stub of the twenty-first), features a large cast, and plays with the conventions of genre fiction and the fuzzy line between genre and highbrow. “I’ll have to treat my duration as a mystery and a sci-fi potboiler combined,” Waldy announces, before going on to treat it as a historical and epistolary novel too.

In June 1903, Waldy’s great-grandfather, a pickle magnate named Ottokar Toula from the town of Znojmo, in Moravia, is run over and killed by a watch salesman. Ottokar had been engaged in “a series of experimental inquiries into the physical nature of time,” and when he arrives at the hospital after the crash a cryptic note addressed to his mistress is found in his pocket. Some of it seems to be in an alliterative code — “Bears boors & bohemians bedevil these lateral labors” — and it includes suggestive phrases: “Time can be measured only in its passing”; “Backwards time is impossible, forwards time is absurd.” Ottokar’s descendants, beginning with his two sons, Kaspar and Waldemar — the narrator’s namesake — become obsessed with figuring out what the note means, what Ottokar was after, and whether or not he found it. The brothers go to university in Vienna, where Waldemar gets absorbed in the hermetic world of chronology and becomes a recluse. Eventually, he thinks he’s grasped what his father was driving at, that time moves in circles, “chronospheres,” not straight lines, but before he gets the chance to publicize his discovery, Einstein comes out with the special theory of relativity, which invalidates it. Einstein’s triumph confirms Waldemar in his already pungent anti-Semitism. His research curdles into the conclusion that time is a Jewish conspiracy. He joins the Nazis, becomes a notorious interrogator in the Gestapo, and ends up a Josef Mengele–like mad scientist at a concentration camp, where he performs ghastly experiments on the inmates in the attempt to prove his theories. Kaspar, on the other hand, falls in love with Sonja, the daughter of a Jewish physics professor. They produce twin girls, whom they name Gentian and Enzian. When the Nazis come to power, Kaspar’s family escapes to Buffalo, New York, and changes its name to Tolliver. Sonja dies en route, but Kaspar builds a successful watchmaking business with her cousin, marries again, and has a son called Orson, the narrator’s father.

“Clock Tower, Brooklyn, XLIV: June 22–23, 2009,” a photograph by Vera Lutter. Courtesy the artist and Alfonso Artiaco, Naples, Italy

“Clock Tower, Brooklyn, XLIV: June 22–23, 2009,” a photograph by Vera Lutter. Courtesy the artist and Alfonso Artiaco, Naples, Italy

Waldemar vanished from the camp at the end of the war. The disappearance burdened his family with the possibility that he may have been onto something — that he managed, perhaps, to escape justice by dislodging himself from the flow of time. Enzian and Gentian are strict Jews and read the Talmud to each other at bedtime, but they are sure that Waldemar has figured something out: Enzie studies physics at college, though she continues to refuse to speak the name of Einstein, whom she believes robbed her family of its place in the history books; Genny sets about curating an “archive” of objects relating to time — more or less everything, hence the piles of junk — in their apartment. Orson becomes a writer of sci-fi erotica as well as the author of The Excuse, a novel about the future that becomes popular in Age of Aquarius America — and a bestseller when some of the predictions it makes turn out to have been correct. It becomes the holy book of the United Church of Synchronology, a religious organization that reveres Orson as a prophet. Waldy, Orson’s son, has an affair with the wife of the church’s “First Listener” (a sort of cross between CEO and high priest) in the course of his own temporal investigations. Wray splices the story of their relationship with the story of the rest of Waldy’s family: where the two stories collide, the novel peaks, and the family’s secret — the secret behind their secret — is revealed.

Waldy’s vocabulary is thick with his family’s preoccupations even when he isn’t thinking about time. “You were trapped inside a Möbius loop of admirers” is how he describes his first encounter with the woman who will become his lover. Characters he meets seem equally obsessed: an old man at the nursing home where he works has memorized the average life span of everything from a rainbow trout to a football. Like the aunts’ apartment, Wray’s novel is stuffed with souvenirs of the past century. Scenes play out against a whirl of political moments, scientific and artistic breakthroughs, and wars. In Vienna, a salon hosted by Wittgenstein’s dad buzzes with word of Einstein’s latest theory. Sonja is a foulmouthed revolutionary Communist who models for Klimt.

In New York, Waldy’s aunts become a fixture of 1960s hipsterdom, known for their extravagant dinner parties at which they play host to the likes of Eldridge Cleaver, Harry Smith, Carl Van Vechten, William F. Buckley Jr., Charles Mingus, and Buckminster Fuller. One of their guests is Joan Didion, whom Wray cheekily ventriloquizes:

It’s a pretty nice evening and not much is happening so someone suggests that we go see the Sisters. Not having any idea who the Sisters might be, I wonder aloud whether they won’t object — it’s past ten o’clock on a Wednesday — but LaMont waves my question aside. “They’re having one of their nights,” he says, as if that explains things.

At the end of The Excuse, Orson writes that “our consciousness is all the time machine we need,” a slogan that finds its way onto hippies’ T-shirts. Wray has fun with the notion, constantly probing the relationship between time and mind. Kaspar tells his brother that when he has sex with Sonja he feels as though time stands still. Waldemar misunderstands him and tries to borrow Sonja so that she can stop time for him too. Wray reminds us that we often think about our lives using the language of time travel, projecting ourselves into possible futures, posing what-ifs about the past. “What are you going to do, Mr. Tolliver?” the nursing-home guy asks the narrator. “Go back in time and kill your father’s uncle?” In a sense, that’s exactly what he intends.

Reading can transport the imagination back or forward in time; it can also accelerate our experience of time or slow it down, as Waldy discovers when holed up in an attic with almost nothing to read but The Official World of Warcraft Game Guide. Wray himself pulls off a fiddly piece of time wizardry by telling Waldy’s story alongside his family’s. The family story covers a hundred-odd years, Waldy’s barely thirty, but both take up about the same amount of space on the page, obliging the reader to experience narrative time at two velocities. Physical and literary time are conflated most dramatically in Enzie and Genny’s apartment, which Waldy realizes is a massive time machine. Waldy sits down in the middle of the apartment and starts to write; by giving him the space in which to do so, the machine fulfills its function.

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is an editor at the London Review of Books.

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